CS247G introduced me to the complexity and thoughtfulness that underpin fun. Before this class, I didn’t understand the depth of theory behind game design. I thought that designing a game was a purely creative and somewhat random process that resulted in the ephemeral “fun.” It’s similar to fiction writing — before you learn more deeply about creative writing, you might think that the process of writing a good story is just to sit down and let the words flow out of you. In reality, there are countless techniques and strategies that underpin good storytelling. The same is true, I’ve learned, for building a good game: there’s a depth of theory and knowledge about what makes play successful that designers employ to build games.
I learned, for example, that fun can be classified into different types. The classic eight types of fun are sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discovery, expression, and submission, although other theorists have added types to this list. It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that Settlers of Catan and Solitaire are fun for very different reasons. I was also interested to learn about the many different formal elements that are relevant to game design. Boundaries are implicit in many games but not something I ever noticed until I learned about its importance. A game of ice hockey has inherent boundaries to its play, but so does What Remains of Edith Finch.
One of my favorite videos from this class was how to onboard players onto a game. The creator of PvZ talked about how you can build tutorial into your game by slowly introducing new elements of gameplay to new players. You have to think through introducing not just simple mechanics, but also the why behind mechanics, and strategies for playing the game successfully. For example, people who don’t often play video games will sometimes play PvZ without planting sunflowers; instead, they try to plant peashooters first. You have to introduce them to the importance of sunflowers in early games to solidify their understanding of this strategic point. I’d never thought about how thoughtfully PvZ introduces you to the game as you begin playing. I remember playing the game as a kid and never having any difficulty advancing through the game. It was also interesting to hear about how visual choices are important in giving players cues about how mechanics work. For example, a pea shooter that shoots twice as many peas was designed with two leaves on its head instead of one, and its two peas were shot out together, in order to indicate its function. This was a great learning moment for me: a game of my childhood cracked open with all its inner workings displayed.
A final lesson that stuck out to me from this course was how to build a successful escape room. We learned not to have many extraneous items in the room, since it’s best to keep the players’ eyes focused on objects of importance. We learned to keep explicit storytelling to a minimum, because it’s better to let the game tell the story through clues and puzzles rather than through written/read text.
We implemented what we learned in this class into the projects we built. For Project 1, I built a version of Twister involving body parts. Since we knew that we were focusing on fellowship fun, we incorporated Truth or Dare elements in addition to the physical component. We thought about how to modulate the level of difficulty to make the game both fun and playable. We also workshopped how to introduce people to our game by using the fundamentals of Twister and explaining how we built on them. This used people’s existing knowledge to ease them into our game. For Project 2, I built a corporate corruption escape room. We experienced the downsides of incorporating too many extra elements in our final escape room, when we included books as scenery that ended up derailing our players for several minutes. We initially had an idea for a very complex corporate storyline, but ultimately scrapped it to focus on the gameplay. This made the game clearer to play and the story less overwhelming.
I felt challenged often in this class. Sometimes, your idea for a game sounds great in theory, and ends up failing in practice. For example, our initial rules for body Twister made the game almost impossible to play. We made changes to make it easier and ended up making it so easy that it wasn’t fun. It was challenging to learn to playtest and modulate the game continuously. I grew as an ideator: you can’t be too attached to your ideas until you see them played out. I enjoyed the design and iteration process.
As I continue studying HCI and building things, I will keep in touch with the importance of real-life testing and iteration. Just because something sounds fun doesn’t mean it will be. But just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean you won’t eventually find a fix!